Media release: It's time for a politically sustainable approach to improving water quality

Dr Eric Crampton
Media release
23 August, 2021

Wellington (Monday, 23August 2021): Improving water quality requires more than short-term fixes, concludes a new report released today by the New Zealand Initiative. Any Government committed to improving New Zealand’s freshwater quality must build the institutions that can deliver it while withstanding changes in Government.

Fording the Rapids: Charting a course to fresher water, written by Chief Economist Dr Eric Crampton builds on the Initiative’s prior work on cap-and-trade systems for freshwater management. Our 2019 report, Refreshing Water: Valuing the priceless, argued that cap-and-trade systems form the most promising basis for bringing catchments within sustainable environmental limits.

“New Zealand’s declining water quality in our rivers, lakes, aquifers and beaches must be addressed, and soon,” says Dr Crampton.

“Right now, there is strong and laudable public appetite for improving New Zealand’s freshwater quality. But sustaining support for better environmental outcomes does not just require the most cost-effective ways of cleaning up the messes. It also requires embedding a just transition towards better practices into the system at the outset, rather than as an afterthought.”

Regulatory measures can and do improve freshwater quality; they are an important part of the government’s current response. So too can voluntary community efforts. But sustained long-term improvement is required.  

Cap-and-trade schemes for managing freshwater abstraction and for managing nutrient, sediment and E. coli levels are not just promising cost-effective ways of refreshing our waterways in the longer term. They are also institutional reforms that become politically durable, ensuring that future governments keep our water clean.

“No cap-and-trade scheme could be introduced soon; it is a project that requires substantial work. But it could provide a strong basis for ensuring long-term water quality. The recent review of Overseer concluded that it needs substantial improvement. If a major redesign of on-farm management tools is needed anyway, designing it to enable a future cap-and-trade system would make sense.”

Read more: Fording the Rapids: Charting a course to fresher water is available on our website.

Our 2019 report, Refreshing Water: Valuing the Priceless, is available here.


Dr Eric Crampton is available for comment. To schedule a time please contact:

Ben Craven, External Relations Manager
M: 022 079 2788

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